Marian Borkowski composer


Hymnus, 2008

Hymnus, 2005
Pax in terra II, 1988
Adoramus, 1991
Regina caeli, 1995
De profundis, 1998
Ave. Alleluia. Amen I, 2000
Libera me I, 2005
Hosanna I, 1993
Dies irae, 2004

Marian Borkowski’s choral and vocal-instrumental music

         Marian Borkowski’s choral and vocal-instrumental works featured on this CD occupy a special place in the composer’s oeuvre. They constitute the highest point in Borkowski’s career, the culmination of his entire creative path. As it is not possible to discuss in these notes all the significant aspects of Borkowski’s compositional craft and musical idiom, let me focus on the sacrum in his music. ‘At present’, the composer says, ‘I often look to  Latin Biblical texts (carefully selected at that) for the source and powerful treasure trove of the humanistic achievement of man’s thought. I do this in view of the universal function of the Latin language and the genuine depth of man’s thought and existential experience, which is contained in its words-notions and sayings. In my creative work and my reflections of the condition of contemporary man, I am undoubtedly coming close to the phenomenon of the broadly understood sacrum – in its universal, humanistic and symbolic dimension’.

          The disc opens with Hymnus for mixed choir and symphony orchestra. Written in 2005 to mark the 350th anniversary of the defence of the Jasna Góra shrine during the Swedish invasion of Poland, the piece is a continuation of Borkowski’s cycle of monumental vocal-instrumental works, which, as the composer once wrote, ‘create a specific kind of symphonism with a very wide range of sonoristic and expressive approaches (from euphonic to extremely dissonant). As a result, these works become vocal-orchestral symphonic poems’.

 Hymnus bears the dedication In honorem Claromontana and its text is confined to the single word ‘Claromontana’. The music emanates a sublime atmosphere and a sense of mysticism. The work marks another stage in the composer’s explorations in the field of sacred music. In the climaxes the choir and orchestra join together in the ceremonial adorations, lotfy and solemn. The wind instruments are assigned much importance (triple woodwind and quadruple brass), as well as five groups of percussion instruments. Borkowski also puts the emphasis on the play of contrasts - the rhythmic brass interventions, aggressive percussion entries (glissandi on the tubular bells and rhythmic, march-like timpani) and on the homophonic choral part which is scored throughout in the nota contra notam technique on long rhythmic values. The work begins with a quiet, mysterious sequence from the bells. It does not seem to anticipate the oncoming powerful climax which is opened by a crescendo on the tam-tams. Above the ensuing dynamic layer of the timpani there appears a highly expressive fanfare played by the brass instruments,  bright in timbre and  solemn in character. It is the frequent fanfare fragments that decide the lofty character of the entire composition. They are counterbalanced, the composer says, ‘by the sequences – significant for the expressive shape of the piece – in which the surface melodic phrases of lyrical provenance (distinctly euphonic) pile up. The formal construction of the work is non-formulaic and lucid (incorporating concentric symmetry).’

          On three occasions in his career Marian Borkowski has taken up the problem of peace. All the three works are settings to the words Pax in terra, which also constitute their titles. This disc contains Pax in terra II (1988) scored for female voice, percussion and organ. The work’s performance in an interior with a natural, large reverberation (preferably in a church) makes a truly deep, almost ecstatic impression. The reverberation of the church interior enhances the expressive impact of the composition.  The spatial arrangement of the performers plays an important role here. In fact, topophony is a significant sonoristic and expressive factor in many of Borkowski’s pieces.  In Pax in terra II the percussion groups are located in four places, forming the shape of the cross. The play of contrasts, the element of silence and instrumental dialogues have an impact on the shaping of form and expression. The distinctly sonoristic character of the score is highlighted by such such features as the clusters in the organ part, the glissandi of the bells, the aggressive sounds of the timpani and  tam-tam as well as the treating of the human voice as an instrument (the human voice faces a formidable task in forcing itself through the vast mass of sound created by the organ and percussion instruments).  The title’s call for peace of the title is exposed in the highest vocal register. The middle section contains a haunting vocalise for the sopranos (molto lamentoso). The musical action in the whole composition is imbued, as Borkowski writes, with ‘an extreme drama of highly condensed expression’. The expressive impact of the music is deepened by the numerous performance directions included in the score (grido, impetuoso, agitato, molto deciso, con passione), the moments where the musical action stops (allowing the music to decay in the acoustically natural church environment) and the powerful crescendi, from the lowest possible pianissimo to fortissimo (tremolo of percussion instruments, followed by tutti and organ cluster). 

 The next work on this CD is Adoramus for a cappella mixed choir. It was written in 1991 and dedicated to the composer’s wife,  Maria Borkowska. The piece has no text and its musical material is based on a vocalise on the vowel ‘a’ and bocca chiusa (wordless humming). The vocalise is the central articulatory and expressive element. The musical material centres on the note A. The harmonic language employs four basic consonances repeated in the same sequence order  but with changing dynamics, articulation and rhythm. These consonances  also constitute the  foundation of the composition (pedal bourdon). The work’s dominant feature, however, is the soprano part. It has a charmingly simple and distinct melodic line which keeps returning as a refrain.

          The choral Regina caeli (1995) is a setting of the entire Marian antiphone Regina caeli. Its characteristic feature is the strict formal symmetry which has a bearing on the organization of the musical material throughout the composition. The work falls into several sections organized in arch form. Other elements of the composition are also subordinated to the principle of symmetry. The  ‘alleluia’ refrain appears in strategic places, at the beginning, at the end and right in the middle – on the axis of symmetry. The word ‘alleluia’ is accompanied every time by the singing all’ unisono (in octave doublings). The fragments which are settings of the stanzas of the antiphone are harmonically neotonal. They are full of simplicity as well as of interesting and unusual harmonic and expressive solutions.

         De profundis for mixed choir and symphony orchestra was written in 1998 as a tribute to the memory of the composer’s parents. The work opens a series of Borkowski’s large scale vocal-instrumental forms whose provenance can be described as a symbolic sacrum. The setting is confined to the opening verse of  Psalm 130: ‘De profundis clamavi, ad te, Domine’.  The work is scored for a large instrumental line-up consisting of triple woodwind (flutes, clarinets), quadruple brass (trumpets, French horns, trombones), five percussion and string quintet. Borkowski employs the same instrumental combination that he did also in his later works of the same type, Dies irae and Hymnus. As regards the form of De profundis, several developmental stages can be distinguished. The work opens with a minute-long section in which the string instruments, in low register, repeat long rhythmic values at irregular intervals, like  a cluster melting into silence. What ensues, as a repercussion, is a fast-changing, aggressive cluster in high register, played fortissimo, followed by a rhythmic but asynchronic sussurando choral section in which the whole text (De profundis clamavi, ad te, Domine) is sung. A highly important role in the work is played by several features: the percussion instruments (often punctuating rhythmic or regularly accelerated development of the musical material), climatic points  (tutti in multi-octave all’ unisono), choral exclamations on the words ‘De profundis’ in high register (without definite pitch but notated with graphic symbols), clusters in the wind instruments as well as the clash of two main textures  –  the sonoristic  (based on various types of clusters) and the euphonic (of a romantic character). The central section of the composition contains a highly moving sequence of string instruments in a dialogue with a cappella choral fragments.  It is based on a characteristic pattern of notes (A-B-C sharp-D sharp-F sharp). The composer himself attached much importance to such a sequence and used it in his later works, once remarking ‘it will weigh heavily on the atmosphere of many deeply lyrical phrases’. Marian Borkowski considers De profundis as the work with the deepest expression and the greatest inner drama in his entire output.

          The next piece  – Ave. Alleluia. Amen is for a cappella choir (2000).  The text is confined to the three words of the title.  Ave. Alleluia. Amen is a virtuoso work of  par excellence instrumental technique. Its choral texture comprises combinations of six to twelve voices, notated throughout on six staves of the score. The composer has selected a specific sound material and uses it in a very consistent manner. In many of Borkowski’s post-1982 compositions, the harmonic language is characterised by the coexistence of neo-tonal and atonal structures, closely linked to the sonorous sound. Ave. Alleluia. Amen is one such example. Neo-tonal consonances dominate the final section of the piece, while the atonal ones dominate the first  (Ave) and second section (Alleluia). Moreover, the work is characterised by octaves and unisons, particularly  in the first section and in climaxes, as well as by the cluster technique. Profusely employed in the middle section, this technique comprises three types of cluster: chromatic, whole-tone and the so-called ‘openwork cluster’ (the composer’s term), which is incomplete and where specific notes from the twelve-note scale are absent. ‘The result of these compositional devices’, Borkowski wrote, ‘is a tripartite choral fresco with strong expressive contrasts.’

          Borkowski’s most recent work for a cappella choir, Libera me, was written in 2005; it was premiered on 1 May 2006 during the 16th ‘Gaude Mater’ International Festival of Sacred Music in Częstochowa by the world-renowned British ensemble The Holst Singers conducted by Stephen Layton. This short, solemn composition is a setting of a responsory from the requiem mass: ‘Libera me, Domine, de morte aeterna’. The work has a symmetrical structure, in which several sections, recurring in the same shape, can be distinguished. They are strongly contrasted in terms of dynamics and texture, at the same time displaying a cohesion in the organisation of  the musical material. From the very beginning the work draws the listener’s attention to its simplicity and euphonic sound based on neotonal harmonies. The  dramatic text ‘Libera me, Domine, de morte aeterna’ is given the shape of a solemn, lofty call in the key of G major. The choral sections are scored in two-part and, in some fragments, even three-part textures. Borkowski uses here the compositional devices developed in his earlier works, primarily in Regina caeli, a piece with a similar structural pattern, sound organisation and approach to musical material. The performance directions such as con passione, grido, molto cantabile or dolce espressivo are proof of the importance which Borkowski attaches to expressive features.

          The penultimate piece on the recording is Hosanna for mixed choir and four instruments (trumpet, trombone, percussion, organ), dating from 1993. It is a setting of the single word: ‘Hosanna’. In terms of its musical material, compositional techniques and expressive devices, Hosanna refers to Pax in terra II written several years earlier, with the sonoristic aspect, the play of contrasts, and the aggressive  sounds of the trumpet, trombone and organ assigned much prominence. The choral part is treated on a par with the instrumental part. The text appears  in most cases as parlando-shout in the highest register (grido). As in Pax in terra II, an important role is played by the technique of contrast and the instrumental dialogues (juxtaposition of wind instruments versus percussion or organ). The organ also includes tutti clusters. At the central climax all the performers perform a multi-octave all’ unisono melodic line of modal provenance. Reminiscent of the melody of the chorale Pater noster, it  highlights the work’s emotional mood.

          The last piece on this CD marking Professor Borkowski’s jubilee is  Dies irae for mixed choir and symphony orchestra. It was written at the beginning of 2004. Borkowski selected several key fragments from the medieval sequence:

’Dies irae, dies illa, solvet saeclum in favilla – Tuba  mirum spargens sonum – Lacrimosa dies illa’.  This is in line with his textual usage applied throughout his choral and vocal-instrumental music. The extremely frugal use of the text, alongside the aphoristic character of the musical utterance, is one of the principal features of Borkowski’s compositional workshop. The words ‘Dies irae’ are most frequently in evidence, the ‘day of wrath’ becoming a kind of  motto or key-word with its symbolic, timeless and universal character, therefore broader than the Christian vision of the Last Judgement.  The work is scored for large forces: triple woodwind (flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons), quadruple brass (trumpets, French horns, trombones), expanded percussion section (five performers) and string quintet. As regards the selection and shaping of musical material, the composer continues and develops in  Dies irae  the solutions explored in earlier pieces of a similar type, notably De profundis. Dies irae is based  – to quote the composer again – ‘on an intricate architectural construction stemming from an oscillation between lyrical and dramatic fragments, with vast changes of tension in the climaxes and a wide range of dynamics. This way of shaping the musical narration raises tangibly the work’s emotional temperature and fully justifies the treatment of Dies irae as a choral-orchestral symphonic poem’.

 Marcin Tadeusz Łukaszewski

(translation: Michał Kubicki)

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